February 11, 2009

Proper Recompense for the "Ruined"

Good parts are hard to find for any actor. But you can start multiplying that by exponentials when it comes to black actresses. Even the August Wilson canon, a virtual jobs program for black actors over the last couple of decades, gives most of the great stuff to the guys (it may be Ma Rainey’s black bottom but it’s the volatile trumpeter Levee’s show).

So black actresses everywhere ought to sit down right now and write a thank you note to playwright Lynn Nottage for Ruined, her brave and affective new play about the sexual atrocities committed against women in the war-ravaged Congo that opened last night at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage 1 space at City Center. Theater lovers should send thank you notes too. And here’s mine.

Ruined is one of those rare plays that has something important to say about the world we live in and the wisdom to say it in a way that will both engage and entertain. Plus it has four fantastic female parts.

And I’m not surprised. Intimate Apparel, her 2003 play about a lonely black seamstress at the turn of the last century, established Nottage as a playwright of true consequence. The New York Drama Critics Circle named it the best play of that season and it is my favorite new work of the past 10 years. But before her writing career took off, Nottage worked as the national press officer for the human rights group Amnesty International and when she decided to write this play, she traveled to Congo and interviewed women who have suffered through the devastation there. Ruined combines their stories with her artistry (click here to read a New York Times interview with Nottage about the genesis of the play).

Ruined is set in a brothel owned by Mama Nadi (an intentional homage to Brecht's Mother Courage) who brazenly attempts to profit from the war by catering to both sides of the conflict. As the play opens, she acquires two new girls, who will be mentored by one of her most successful workers. All three have come to Mama Nadi because they have been repeatedly raped by marauding soldiers, then rejected by their shamed families and now have nowhere else to go. One of them has been so badly abused that her insides have been damaged to the point that she is sexually ineffective or, as it is called, ruined (click hear to listen to an NPR report about efforts to help the real-life victims of such atrocities).

The subject is harrowing but Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey smartly add music, dance and even moments of humor that ease the tension without undermining it. The technical team—Scenic Designer Derek McLane, Costume Designer Paul Tazewell, Lighting Designer Peter Kaczorowski and Sound Designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen—creates a thoroughly believable environment for the action.

All four of the actresses have a chance to shine and each clearly relishes this chance to dazzle.
The lovely Condola Rashad brings an ethereal quality to Sophie, the most damaged of the women. Cherise Boothe, captures the seething rage of Josephine, the brothel’s veteran. And Quincy Tyler Bernstine is devastating as Salima, the plain everywoman of the group. The male actors, particularly Russell Gebert Jones as the fixer who fantasizes about a relationship with Mama Nadi, lend able support.

But the play centers around Mama Nadi, her complex relationship with her girls and her struggle to avoid taking sides in the war. Saidah Arrika Ekulona does a fine job, particularly with the earth-mother aspects of the part, but Adriane Lenox, who won a Tony for her brief but unforgettable appearance as the mother in Doubt, was originally cast in the role and I kept imagining the flintiness she would have added to it.

A couple of other things bothered me too. The accents the actors assume seemed arbitrary and unnecessary; after all, actors playing Chekhov don’t fake Russian accents. The references to Mama Nadi’s large stable of girls were distracting since we only see three. And then there’s the ending. I think I get why Nottage chose it. I just wish she’d chosen differently. But these are nitpicks. This is a play you should see.


Anonymous said...

awesome blog, do you have twitter or facebook? i will bookmark this page thanks. peace maria

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks, Maria. I'm so glad you like B&Me. Yes, there are B&Me Twitter and Facebook pages, although when my schedule is crazy--too much of the time--I tend to simply post the reviews you'll find here on them. So I think your bookmark (or setting up an RSS feed) is probably the way to go. However you read these entries, I hope you'll continue to comment every now and then. Albest, jan